In the centre of London, the stranded water gates of Somerset House and York House – marooned inland and estranged from the river traffic they once oversaw – are emblematic of the city’s asymmetric pace of change. Similarly, Blackfriars Bridge sits juxtaposed with the absurd, functionless stumps of its original, only half-demolished incarnation. The current bridge was partially severed in the last river reclamation; its final arch now spans land regained from the river, instead of the river itself. Rather than razing and reconstructing – effecting change in the vertical dimension – these architectonic incongruities signify a process of abutment or grafting: change in the horizontal dimension. The form of this change is that of the palimpsest rather than of the clean slate upon which one creates anew.
In the wake and shadow of infrastructural splitting and suturing, unusual ground-spaces have evolved. Beneath the Westway, for example, an urban paddock occupies the footprint of the elevated roundabout, taking a morphological cue from its circularity; ponies jump palettes and have shipping containers for stables. The normal rules of the city are upended: with the motorway’s vast concrete skin as a sky, the foundations below are occupied by leisure and the community. In a similar example, Crossrail creates huge foundational spaces adjoining the extant underground halls, now given over to the Museum of London. Having once been a street-level depot receiving animals for Smithfield Market, these areas are now underground.
The line beyond which we can no longer monetise or colonise the earth shifts constantly over time, though such a line always exists: there is a point where soil is just soil, inadmissible of manipulation by, or deployment to the ambitions of civilisation. Beyond this boundary is the unseen, absolutely distinct from what can be seen. The city is often described as a web of overlapping edges. Such ‘anxious landscapes’, as described by Antoine Picon – wherein our perception of space and distance is confused by ever-shifting reflections of light and clashing surfaces – find a corollary in the idea that the ground beneath is merely the city’s support. However, work undertaken below our feet is governed by a different set of rules from that taking place aboveground. The danger and brute materiality of the earth assert themselves. Unique hazards occupy the minds of those who labour under the pressure of forty metres of earth. The lack of connectivity – of mobile reception, natural light, open space – renders subterranean structures isolated from one another, entombed in the earth.
For the engineers of underground structures, whose labour is dominated by the interface of the architectural and the tectonic, the ground is an inert mass awaiting the thrust of Tunnel Boring Machines (TBMs) to carve voids through it.
While the relentless flux and stream of life takes place in the above-ground’s present tense, immune to capture, underground the past congeals into legible strata; static patterns amenable to examination. A cross-sectional graphic on display at the Museum of London assigns to each level in the ground a historical moment, collapsing geological hierarchies and temporalities onto those designed by human culture. Section 12 of the National Planning Policy Framework requires those constructing or renovating to demonstrate their awareness of the ‘heritage assets’ that might be affected by their activity. Consequently, archaeologists are now a regular feature of major construction sites. With developers demanding that the removal of heritage obstacles be rapid – so that retrieval of the past does not delay construction of the future – organizations such as MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) advertise first and foremost the speed and efficiency of their excavation teams. Inevitably, though, since the temporality and trajectory of archaeology are diametrically opposed to those of construction, fast is never fast enough. Thus, for the archaeologists whose presence on these sites is mandated by law, the ground is not inert but rather a rich, protective medium for the preservation of meaningful artefacts of peoples long buried.
There is a tension in the subterranean, in its resistance of the mechanisms that govern the city above. The soil is at once symbolically inert and rich in meaning, and we can interpret the “basement” of the city as both ripe for capitalisation and resistant to manipulation. Underground engineering creates vast, even sublime spaces, dominated by machines and processes on a superhuman scale, and the human workers, despite their adornment in fluorescent PPE, seem dwarfed to ants. The power of human capital and ambition are contrasted with the power and heft of the soil. A display board routinely found on site tots up the hours since the last ‘lost time incident’ (29), or RIDDOR (‘Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013’), reflecting the contemporary imperative for safety in the workplace – a relatively new idea – whilst reducing human operatives on-site to numerics of ‘lost time’. The humane concept of health and safety goes hand in hand with economic imperatives.
The orthogonal vectors of this activity (soil from the Crossrail sites is shifted laterally to create an artificial island at Wallasea; artefacts are extracted vertically) weave a complex ‘settling of accounts’, in which the soil is dug, moved, reconfigured according to human design. Building down into earth, as opposed to up into the sky, is by nature a displacement activity. Its part in the wider cycle of shift and waste has a lot to tell us about displacements on a larger scale, of wildlife and histories.
Turn and Forget
TBMs are curious phenomena; their physics of constant forward-oriented rotation would ideally see them in constant motion, so their tunnels don’t implode. In effect, these are nightmarish motion machines, incapable of turning back. Yet today, operations do have to draw to a halt with the unearthing of delicate domestic artefacts. A civil engineer, in discovering a terra incognita, an unaccounted-for shadow on a technical drawing, summons the archaeological team on site; they work perpendicular to the action, sieving, trowelling on a lateral axis, gently dusting off their fragmentary finds that will eventually ascend.
The TBMs leave a functional cylindrical tunnel in their wake, soon to be lined, clad, rigged with lights and cables, and finally populated by trains and the people within them. In a final volte-face, the machines themselves are rarely retrieved from the earth; instead they are programmed to drive absently off-course, where they remain, abandoned in their self-created cavities. This standard practice is called ‘turn and forget’, and brings the relentless machines finally to inertia, merging them with – or perhaps burying them in – the earth.
For engineers, the land is a brute mass devoid of meaning, in which remnants of human activity are buried and soon forgotten; for the archaeologists, it is the very stuff of human history, to be accessed slowly, with granular curiosity and care, and a kind of reverence. Perhaps ironically, when a successor of Crossrail is constructed many decades or centuries from now, it will likely be archaeologists who will unearth the turned-and-forgotten TBMs, and who will construct (and reconstruct) the meanings of the land they examine; the meanings unseen by those for whom the ground was mute soil.
The idea was to take a series of trips to sites in and around London with a small group of strangers and friends, all working in the arts. With the help of Somerset House studios, I programmed four day trips across seven locations: two domestic houses, two infrastructural hubs, and two seats of power in the City.
The houses – 575 Wandsworth Road and the British Vintage Wireless and Television Museum – expressed different notions of the domestic. The first operated as a haven for Kenyan civil servant Khadambi Asalache who, over many years, restlessly transformed the house’s interior through intricate woodwork: a process he described as “fretworking”. The other house became a meeting point for vintage TV enthusiasts upon the death of its owner, Gerry Wells. In different ways, both houses functioned as retreats from the modern world beyond their walls.
At two major infrastructure hubs, the TFL transport hub and the Beckton sewage pumping station, we saw first-hand the complexities involved in managing such systems, which monitor our movements around the city and convey away waste. In both cases, we met inspiring people, such as Dina Gillespie, the site manager at Beckton, whose vital work goes unnoticed by most, but prevents London’s population from dying of cholera.
Finally, we visited two old seats of corporate power in the City of London: livery companies and the insurance broker, Lloyd’s of London. More on these can be found on the website here (see “Animals in the City”).
Anabasis to Dora was in some ways an investigative project, starting from a curiosity about the fact that there are various vital systems and spaces, which are in constant contact with us, and yet invisible; that everything we do in the city is within an infrastructure we ignore, forget, or simply do not see. Gaining access to such sites was not always easy: I had to write a number of lengthy emails, forging careful relationships with the sites’ representatives.
The support of the wonderful team at Somerset House lent a greater legitimacy to my requests and, on reflection, the fact of being a group of artists afforded us an unusual privilege that made access somewhat easier. Indeed, as artists, it was often presumed that we were non-critical visitors, that, perhaps, our curiosity would lie at a distance from the nuts and bolts of the operation in question. I also noticed a curiosity on the part of those showing us around at the sites, as though they were intrigued by how we might view them.
For example, Lloyd’s normally receives professionals from the finance industry, so our presence was an anomaly – though welcomed all the same. It was assumed that we would want to look at the company’s art collection, instead of learning about the current workings of their corporation. In contrast, at TFL we were offered an honest perspective on the work that goes on there. The head of surface traffic, Leon Feld, told us movingly about the considerable challenges facing his department, and the effect of cuts to government funding.
Recently the subject of which doors are open and closed, and to whom, has rightfully been much discussed. Anabasis to Dora was not an attempt to answer such questions of access and exclusion.Rather, it has been an opportunity to consider the nature of the systems that underpin the functioning social world and our individual lives. At TFL, for example, there is an array of predetermined, numbered responses assigned to staff in a system designed for the fastest reaction to emergencies. Such systems are sustained by great care, time and attention on the part of individuals, something that can only be properly understood, I think, by seeing them up close.
Despite their schedules, the people we met at these sites made time to welcome us – even those with enormous responsibility, like Dina at Beckton. They were all very hospitable and, furthermore, made us feel as though our visit was important. To me, that is reflective of a more hopeful view of the role that artists can play in enabling access to these spaces. Throughout the course of these visits, I came to appreciate how important it is for us to look carefully, and also to try to understand precisely the terms of access.
Lastly, a word on “anabasis”. This is a term that means the movement from the state to the interior. In poetic form, it refers to a linguistic crescendo. Funnily enough, it can also mean the obverse; a dramatic retreat.
There is something strange about encountering animal forms in the centre of the City of London. If you walk along Lombard Street, you will pass under a golden grasshopper perched combatively outside number 68. Then, if you go back along St Swithin’s Lane, through Cannon Street, you will arrive at Dowgate Hill. Here, two gilded weasels mount the entranceway to the Skinners’ Hall, home to the Worshipful Company of Skinners since the 1630s.
The tour guide who came to meet us was, notably, not a liveryman – nor did we meet any liverymen – but, with immense energy, he welcomed us in and showed us around. He led us past the unobtrusive façade, through a Venetian-style courtyard, then into a series of grand rooms, all over which the church of St James Garlickhythe looms. This Hall – similar many livery company halls – is like a self- contained city, holding a chapel, a banqueting hall and a court, in which the brotherhood convened as the administrative body of its nominal trade. In these sumptuous spaces, wearing ceremonial robes, the Skinners determined the pricing and the distribution of furs and leathers, produced in working areas like Deptford and Bermondsey. They themselves did not participate in the messy business of skinning dead animals, but controlled the increasingly dominant commercial aspect, reinforcing sumptuary laws by selling ermine only to the wealthiest nobles: a fur reserved for the linings of royal clothes.
The abundance of animal forms and objects, featured on coats of arms etc, hark back to a time when these Halls housed the administrative operations of trades. These symbolic images announce each building’s identity: mermaids stand-in for fishmongers; books for stationers; and nimbus-ed, winged, horned, half-gold (Or), half-silver (Argent) bulls for butchers.
The influence of the livery brotherhoods is still incongruously present today, many have evolved to become charitable institutions in the City. Their coats of arms still feature on their buildings, now figured as logos. These are worthy of a careful look, and include the relief on the hall of the Company of Salters, portraying a trio of gaudy salt cellars, from which sprouts a mutant arm, wielding another, tiny saltshaker. At Skinners’ Hall, its coat of arms depicts a tufty lynx and hook-tailed sable, holding up the crest of the company that once profited from the work of killing and skinning them.
Another intriguing coat of arms belongs to the Company of Watermen and Lightermen. Its shield features an empty boat, strangely vacant of its waterman, supposedly the very engine and purpose of the company. The waterman only figures in the image through synecdoche; as a disembodied arm, clutching a golden oar or flagstaff. Where humans do appear in heraldry, it is only in fragments, or as a passive decoration, as shown by the golden-haired farm girl (identified as “a demi-maiden proper”) who appears on the crest of the Brewers, whose hair melds into the wheat she brandishes.
The coats of arms act as ‘closed symbols’ passed from generation to generation, featuring a set of communally understood signs – such as free-floating insignia, lines, dentures and curlicues – dating back to a time when they were used on armour, so that soldiers could distinguish between different families on the battlefield. When the livery companies formed and created their own heraldries, they introduced these garish medleys of animals and objects, dismembered limbs and floating tools.
The livery company’s heraldic shield is suggestive of these cycles of trade and production.. (XX) Today the shield holds a latent power, visually expressing an authority held over centuries, and ennobling the ordinary things represented within it. There is something totem-like about the inclusion of tools and animals on these coats of arms. Used to different ends by the new City fraternities, earlier rural communities endowed symbols of the animal kingdom with a paganistic potency, dependent as they were on the natural world.
At Stationers’ Hall: an image of sheaves of paper, books, tools – the materials of a trade – are there, but held aloft by two angelic flautists. Familiar, yet now disembodied objects, gilded upon a coat of arms and ornamenting a grand building.
When you cross that equatorial line between observer and obsessive you navigate by different lights. The leyman might attribute the invention of radio to Marconi; for the radio devotees at the museum, Oliver Lodge was responsible for the specific inventions that led to radio, and therefore for radio itself. History, their reasoning went, chose its inventors based on showmanship and force of personality, but history was not in possession of all the facts. There was a lot of talk about unsung heroes.
The first British TV broadcast at Alexandra Palace in 1936. The presenters wore full evening dress. Someone spilled a large quantity of cyanide (it was the only chemical that would develop or “fix” the film fast enough for transfer and broadcast) and it soaked into the female presenter’s ballgown. The smiling broadcaster in a ballgown dripping poison…
The radar TVs. After WW2, household televisions were still wildly expensive, but there was a surfeit of radar equipment. Some enterprising sorts built TVs with these radars. The picture was fairly decent but for the fact it was green. How many people experienced all the stories of the day in lurid green?
The Nazi radio that only picked up one station: a sharp comment on the notion of free will in an authoritarian regime.
The radios made by PYE but released under the PAM name in case they didn’t work. I like the idea of a company setting up a scapegoat company to blame for all their shoddy stuff. It’s such a fantastically guilty thing to do.
The lament that we have lost our connection to the world is a common one and I won’t add to the pot. But the feeling that we have lost our connection to technology is a new one on me. Our increasing reliance on tech may foster the illusion of closeness, but progress moves us further away from having any control over these elements. Nothing is fixable any more. The parts are too small, too opaque, too tinnily-made. “There’s nothing there,” our guide said of the inner workings of today’s TVs. There will be no museum of flat screen TVs. The ageing museum custodians are our last link to this connection and control. When they go, it too shall pass.
Finally: I bought a copy of OBSESSION, Gerry Wells’ autobiography. I’ve only read the beginning, but you might like to know that Gerry’s first words were “Fireworks!” when, at the age of 2, he wrapped the metal prongs of a lamp plug in tin foil and plugged it into the mains. (He was, he says, always obsessed with electricity.) Also, the front room of number 23 (where we gathered for our tour) was the scene of war-time tragedy. A widow living in the house heard her only son had died in France and drank a fatal dose of arsenic. In her death throes she heard that her son had not died and that it had been a mistake. Gerry (who it should be said was an ardent sceptic of ghosts etc.) says the room was impossible to keep warm and that dogs would not go in there. He eventually agreed to let a medium hold a seance there which seemed to do the job. Gerry was able to sit amongst his TVs and radios in comfort, and he was happy.
— Simon Wroe
In the morning: a tour of the ancient Worshipful Company of Salters rather contemporary Brutalist Hall, then onto Skinners’ Hall, home to a Beadle and Under Beadle.
In the afternoon: a rare opportunity to tour Richard Rogers iconic Lloyd’s buildings, wherein, despite looking “more like an oil refinery than an office block”, the Lutine Bell continues its 238 year ringing.